I can understand why fear pervades the social space. Some psychologists have argued that social networking will contribute to the death of emotional intelligence. I don’t share this paranoia. Email didn't kill the conversation, so why should social networking?
In my opinion, the medium through which you communicate does not destroy your inter-personal skills, it merely reflects and amplifies them. Here's my take on why social media can have a positive effect on our communication skills.
Let’s take some responsibility
If you stop communicating and simply rely on technology to send information, then you have to take responsibility for allowing technology to change your efficiency. Social channels provide a communication tool that enables people to share/discuss information instantly and globally. I would argue that this is actually opening up inter-personal skills and improving communication; reach has grown exponentially.
Take the example of the recent United Airlines PR disaster – Dave Carroll’s use of YouTube highlighted the issue of poor customer service to a global audience (over 3.6m video views) who in turn got involved in the debate and spread the original content across their networks as well as commenting on what happened. The result?
- A single communication affecting millions of people.
- Generation of new dialogue and engagement.
- Sharing of thoughts and opinions to influence an outcome, as United Airlines apologised publicly.
Just because that engagement took place virtually without face-to-face contact is not in itself negative. Without social media this conversation would never have taken place.
Let’s take another recent example with the snowball that is Twitter. Habitat miss-used trending hashtags. The effect? A surge of criticism chastising Habitat for what was, at best, naivety.
Whilst the focus of conversation was on the morals of Habitat’s actions, this also raised awareness of the genuine news story regarding the Iran Election. Opinions were shared, blog posts created and a major discussion ensued. I think this is progressive. Not every comment was constructive but the ‘real world’ is not utopian either.
I read an interesting comment yesterday that argued, “Just as it's harder to write a one page summary than a 20 page report, it takes considerable skill to communicate clearly and unambiguously in just 140 characters.” With only 140 characters to write, micro blogging could actually help improve communication as people focus on what is relevant and important.
Yes I accept that some tweets are poorly structured (others perhaps done without any real purpose) but I’ve sat in many a pub where the same applies to the general banter! And who decides what valuable communication is anyway? Surely that is the recipient’s honour?
Learning from the community could be beneficial
Empathy is essential if you are to get people to engage with you in social channels, then somebody who lacks inter-personal skills is likely to struggle with online communication too. As an individual you can learn quickly from others in your online community and you will know if people aren’t responding, some will tell you directly others will simply tune out. It takes time, dedication and commitment to become a valuable member of a social network.
Social media is starting to change the way companies communicate internally
Innovative companies use social tools like blogs and wikis to compliment their existing internal communications strategy. The social elements encourage individuals to become involved on a personal level with company policy and culture. They encourage participation and knowledge sharing because they are not imposed centrally but grown organically.
BT is a good example of this and Steve Nichol’s CiB blog gives a good background. The pull out quote is from Ross Chesney, BT’s head of Communication Services: “The important thing is not the tools that people use to publish, but what they get out of it. The real value is the knowledge sharing and collaboration that people gain.”
Social media might turn people away from personal contact
To take a balanced, rational view, it is also perfectly possible that some might turn to social media to shy away from direct contact. Perhaps this is a bad thing, I’m sure the psychologists can contribute the theory. But what if direct contact is so painfully embarrassing and stressful to such people that they would not interact anyway? Perhaps then social media can actually increase a person's communication skills, albeit in a less implicit way where physical human relationships can't be developed.
I think a key issue to discuss is how parents need to adapt to social networks and encourage their children to interact safely and not harm the development of other communication skills.
Surely enabling communication that previously would not have happened is actually encouraging people to develop soft skills? Yes the communication is explicit rather than implicit (i.e. you can't see their emotions, you can only pick up on them by the tone/style of writing) but the world relies on variety to create engagement.
There is a great blog post you can read by Robert Pagliarini on the perils of “groupthink” in social networks and the ways in which social networks can expand your horizons.
Don’t shoot the messenger - It’s just another communication tool
We would not be having this discussion now if this website did not exist. I think it is better that people engage online than not at all. My knowledge and perspective has been developed by using professional networks like Econsultancy. My ability to interact socially has not been adversely affected. I don't see social media replacing more traditional forms of communication; I simply see it enhancing the toolset we can use to communicate on a more global level. That to me is progress and should be embraced.
Happy to hear any challenges to or progressions of my view, that's the beauty of being social...